Canvey's First and Last House

Waterside Farm

This building at Waterside Farm stands empty now, for the first time in its long and eventful history.

Canvey Island in Essex, like Land’s End in Cornwall, claims a first and last house. However, Waterside Farm makes no attempt to rival its Cornish counterpart. Tourists do not visit it and few artists, photographers or writers would give it their serious attention. The farmhouse stands close to the bridge that connects the island’s only approach road to the nearby mainland. The house and its assorted outbuildings huddle in the lee of ancient sea defences, very unlike the granite bastion protecting its opposite number in the duchy, and in prospect Waterside Farm has only the windswept marshes to contemplate within a stone’s throw of the tidal Thames. It lacks grandeur, but the farmstead’s long history is itself a testimony to the fortitude of generations of men determined to wrest the land from the ravages of the encroaching sea.

Waterside Farm, distinct from the present farmhouse, is probably the oldest on the island, and until very recently remained one of the few to be extensively worked. In Norman times nearby landowners prized the island’s fine sheep pastures, and prior to 1881, when the island was officially constituted a civil parish, the lands were divided and shared by a number of mainland parishes. Considerable numbers of sheep were kept for their wool and meat, and from ewes’ milk large, strong cheeses were made. In the thirteenth century mention is made of a marsh called Westwicke (“wick” referred to a shed for cheese-making), and even today many names on the island remind its inhabitants and visitors of this early husbandry. Essex cheeses acquired an unenviable reputation. Written in the fourteenth century, William Langland’s Piers Plowman makes an aspersion against “a wey of Essex cheese” and a couple of centuries later a Surrey ale-wife complained “. . . of Essex cheese . . . well a foot thicke full of magots quicke …” Strong or otherwise, these Essex marshes supplied their cheeses to ships victualling in Thames-side and east coast ports: the cheeses were renowned for their keeping quality, and up till the early eighteenth century blue-water voyagers learnt to stomach this unpalatable product.

Realizing the island’s agricultural potential, several landowners and businessmen commissioned Dutch engineers to drain and embank a large expanse of marshes. With the work complete, some of these Dutchmen decided to remain and settled down with their families. In time this community grew strong enough to seek permission from the king to hold religious services in their own language and power to appoint a minister of their own choosing. During his tour of the eastern counties in 1722 Daniel Defoe noted that “not one half of the [island’s] inhabitants are natives of the place, but such as from other countries . . . settle here for the advantages of good farms, for which I appeal to any ¬†impartial inquiry.” Remembering the absence of roads on the island at the time it was inevitable that Waterside Farm came under Defoe’s close scrutiny. Seventy years later an Act of Parliament to improve Canvey’s sea defences mentioned that “the produce of the land is considerable and many families are maintained in the cultivation thereof.” By the middle of the nineteenth century the greater part of the reclaimed lands were under the plough, and in his description of the area in 1867 Philip Benton wrote “The soil of the island is heavy, but good corn land, and the arable portion is laid up in beds from three to four rods in width.” The use of this particular method of ploughing and tilling helped to improve drainage of the clayey soil.

Within a few years of this description the effects of agricultural depression changed the face of Canvey Island and brought hardship and ruin to many farmers throughout Essex. Some of the farms on Canvey Island were seriously neglected, and others were left derelict by owners or tenants who could no longer make the land their livelihood. Fortunately, Waterside Farm did not suffer this fate. Remarkably, it survived the depression and its 340-odd acres have been skilfully tended for 300 years or more. Others were less fortunate. Small Gains, Lovens, Kit-Katt, Southwick, Northwick and Monkswick are some that have long since disappeared. Their lands today bear the myriad bungalows and chalets for which Canvey Island is well known. Shops, factories and service stations stand on tidy acres which once yielded good crops of oats and barley. Sheep and cattle are no longer commonplace and with the recent sale of Waterside Farm and the completion of a nearby oil refinery it will be difficult to recall or imagine those scenes of rustic charm so evident at the turn of the century.

For the first time in its long and eventful history the first and last house stands empty. The passing of Mr. Fred Leach, the last of the Waterside farmers, marks the end of an era. Its destiny and that of the surrounding farmland are in the hands of the local council, which recently purchased this “valuable arable and dairy farm.” Its future is a matter of speculation, but one thing is certain: Canvey Island has lost a farm whose fields of ripening corn gave pleasure to its many inhabitants and summer visitors.

For the Essex countryside lover there is one consolation. The first and last house will remain, not as ” a substantial and commodious farmhouse” perhaps, but certainly as a living link with the island’s long and chequered history.


Today the building is used by the council refuse dept. and the area nearby is the local refuse/recycling centre. The farm itself is now a golf course and Waterside Leisure centre.

Published in the Essex Countryside September 1968. Reprinted here by permission of Frank Whitnall

Comments about this page

  • I used to live at 4 waterside cottages, just across the the road from the farm, in the 70s-80s. I have fond memories of walking past the farm house wondering what it was like inside! There was a field to the left that people would fly light air craft and on the way back from Leigh, via the cockle sheds and Hadleigh on a Sunday we would watch the light air craft landing and some times crashing into the fields.

    By vanessa (05/04/2010)
  • Before the Council used it as a depot it was used as changing rooms for the football pitches at Waterside.

    By Maureen Buckmaster (14/10/2010)
  • Hi Vanessa You mention living in Waterside cottages. When I worked on Leach’s in the 60s the people I knew who lived in them were Sam and Harry Bennett [cowmen] and Rob Shelley ,foreman. Did you know them? Regards Sparrow

    By Sparrow (23/10/2010)
  • Hi sparrow,that was a bit before my time,i was born in 72 and lived there with my grandparents till the early 80s, then my mother took over and lived there till the early 90s when I lived there Mrs boss and her boys lived next door at no 5, and Norrises had the farm across the roundabout. I’m now 39 and live in wales.

    By vanessa (12/08/2011)
  • I used to live in No. 1 Waterside Cottages with my parents. My dad, Harry Bennett, used to work on Leach’s Farm. Sam was his brother who I believe also worked there. This was in the late 50’s – early 60’s.

    By pj (29/06/2012)
  • Hello PJ. I worked with your dad and his brother in the late 50s early sixties. They were both cowmen and used to milk about 50 cows twice a day. they got free milk and it was one of my jobs to stop the traffic in Canvey road so they could cross over to the milking shed [the building is still there] It would be nice toknow what they are doing now. P.S. In 1960 the rent on those cottages was 7/6–35p per week. Regards Sparrow

    By sparrow (29/06/2012)
  • Hello Sparrow. My uncle Sam passed away about 20 years ago. My dad, Harry, is well. He is retired and still lives on the island. He would really like to know your name. He has been racking his brain trying to remember names of other guys who worked with him on the farm. I remember the free milk, he used to bring a churn over and mum ladled some out. Happy days!

    By pj (13/07/2012)
  • Hello PJ I remember some namesthat Harry might remember—-Albert Glocklin [he used to keep pigs in the back garden of his mums bungalow where the golf club house is now] and his little nephew.–Rob Shelley who I think lived next door to your dad–he had daughters who had horses. I used to be known as Robbie but he will know me better by an expression I used to use, definitely not publishable here But I’d be happy for Janet to give him my Email address/phone number so we can chat. My memories of the brothers are so vivid, both extremely strong men. I had the occasional pint with Harry in the Lobster Smack and can even remember his cars, a green Austin Cambridge and later a maroon Ford Consul. Rode with him many times. Best regards Sparrow

    By sparrow (13/07/2012)
  • Hello I was born at 3 waterside cottages in September 1948 my great uncle Fred Leach owned Waterside farm and my Father Francis (known as Peter) worked for him we lived there untill 1949 when we moved to Chelmsford.

    By brenda (31/08/2012)
  • Hello Brenda Nice to know that Fred has some surviving relatives. I had some happy [but not always easy] times working for him. He and Amelia were true characters. Miss them. Regards Sparrow

    By sparrow (01/09/2012)
  • I now live at 4 Waterside Cottages i moved in here 14yrs ago

    By Tracey (17/10/2012)
  • hi Tracy im Vanessa that used to live i your house,oh i have so may wonderful memories of living there,i would love to chat to you.

    By vanessa (22/01/2014)
  • Hi Vanessa how are you?

    Do you have any photos of the house when you lived in it as it would be so great too see the changes and this is a silly question but did you ever have any trouble with Ghosts??

    By Tracey (12/08/2014)
  • Hi yes yes yes we did I have loads of stories I would love to tell you. But nit sure after all this tine if you still live there? Let me no. I will keep my eye on thus page. Cant believe that someone else has experience of of it atino 4!

    By Vanessa Jones (02/07/2015)
  • Hi Vanessa

    Would love too hear your stories about the spirits in the house when you lived here.

    we too have spirits still inside and outside but we wouldnt be without them as we have fun and games with them especially young Dory who is a little girl.

    I run a paranormal team so you can imagine how much i enjoy it and really would like too hear more from you.

    You can find me on facebook if you want too chat and share stories more look forward too hearing from you xx

    By Tracey (18/07/2016)
  • Hi Tracy

    I had a fiend who lived in your house in the 70’s, we saw a weird apparition once but don’t recall anything about a little girl? Can I have your FB details please? 


    By Janet (06/08/2017)
  • I remember my mother (Yvonne Barnes nee Cook) mentioning Fred Leach the farmer . My mother, her sister Nora and brother Tommy plus their mother Nana (to me) lived on a Houseboat in Benfleet Creek, near the Hoy and Helmet. When I was young and taking our ‘Whiskey’ (Cairn Terrier) for a walk, I used to walk over Canvey Bridge and all around with him. When I got home, my mum said, ‘You didn’t let Whiskey off his lead did you?’ as, Mr. Leach shoots dogs that interferes with his sheep’ !! Of course I didn’t, but, seeing Mr. Leach’s name above reminded me of way back in the very early 50’s !!….x

    By ROBERTA JONES (24/04/2020)
  • I live at 1 waterside cottages now and love the history of the house

    By Niki (14/05/2021)
  • I worked for Fred Leach in the Winter and Spring of 1950/1.
    I lived in Maurice Road and used to ride my byke every mornng along the the Winter Gardens path (Duck Boards) to be ready to start work at 7 a.m.
    We used to thrash Wheat,Oats,Barley,Peas.Beans from Stacks, my job was to feed the wires through the Bailer.
    Most of the land was used for growing crops and Cattle grazing, I don’t remember any sheep at this time.
    The names I remember are Vic, he drove an International Crawler Tractor and lived at Russel Head. Percey Horseman, Stan the Cowman who only had one eye.
    Robby, he lived at Monkswyke( married Winnie Dedman). The other workers lived in the houses opposite , I don’t remember their names.
    Myself and Ronnie Rowe were only 16 years old, our weekly wage was ¬£3-10s-0d (¬£3-50p), on payday Fred would come round and say ..”How much are your wages boy? then get a roll of banknotes out of his pocket and give you your money. He paid your Income Tax and Insurance Stamp.
    In the Spring we walked a herd of Cattle over Benfleet Station Level Crossing, up Hoy Hill and through Benfleet, then down Jotmans Lane to Bowers Marsh. Fred got a Taxi back but we had to walk.!
    After 6 months Ronnie and I decided to go back to our old jobs at Ron Goulding’s Sheet Metal Works at St Annes Road, I remained there until called up for my 2 years National Service.

    By Harry (Roy) Court (07/01/2024)
  • In 1921, Mr John HARRISON had plans made to reconstruct the Farm House as fire had damaged the previous building. All of the font of the building was re-constructed. In 1910, the Farm was owned by the ecclesiastical commissioners (Church of England), with Mr HARRISON being the occupier.

    The Farm had its own well to satisfy water consumption.

    By Martin Lepley (07/01/2024)

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